The seven stories in "The Boat" take readers across ethnic, cultural, and linguistic barriers as they enter the hearts and minds of characters from the slums of Colombia to Iowa City and from the streets of Tehran to a foundering vessel in the South China Sea.
What they all have in common is that each one portrays its characters in a crisis that reveals resources of courage and resilience even he or she was not aware of. All but one of the stories concern what is arguably the deepest, most complex and most poignant of human relationships: the bond between parent and child ... Of all these heartrending stories of pain and loss, the most moving and unforgettable in the collection is 'Halflead Bay' ... As Faulkner observed, voices like his not only record the human condition but also help us endure and prevail.
It reads as a manifesto of sorts, a way for the author to assert his right to roam outside his ethnicity, and to justify the rest of his collection, which neurotically avoids the 'Vietnamese thing,' taking the reader around the world in 80 days, with narrators of all ages and genders, before coming full circle in the title story — 40 pages of entirely unpostmodern realism about boat people suffering as they try to escape the new Communist state ... The Boat is transparently a product of the increasingly formalized milieu in which American writers train — a well-wrought collection that, in its acute self-consciousness, trails a telltale whiff of 'the industry' that is its initial concern, of the 'heap of fellowship and job applications' the fictional Le needs 'to draft and submit' when he’s interrupted by his father ... Le is starting to grapple with the subtleties of authenticity, but one comes away feeling that it’s not really his subject, that he has a future as a very different kind of writer.
...there is so much skill in these stories that it takes a second reading to realise just how many of Nam’s characters are, ultimately, caricatures. The Colombians are violent criminals; the Japanese wonder if they are the reincarnated spirits of dead pine trees; the Iranians talk about the Prophet Mohammed ... If The Boat is a manifesto – an insistence that the writer can get into the souls of people from unknown cultures – then it is a partial success. But the attempt is bold and worthwhile ... A laudable effort to leave what is known for the wide world beyond.